Chances are, you’re not going to turn down a night at the symphony. For one, it’s an excuse to break out that monocle you bought for Halloween a few years ago. But also, you get to witness musical genius, to sit in your chair for a few hours and let the movements wash over you like a melodic massage. The lively sonata, the slow-paced adagio, the grand finale - it’s the ebb and flow of thousands of different notes that help transform a 200-year-old piece of music into something that sounds completely new.
A great meal at a restaurant should possess similar qualities. Different dishes playing their own parts and helping to create a dinner that’s dynamic and interesting, no matter how many times you’ve had it. But when a place hits the same notes over and over again, the meal flatlines, leaving you with an experience that, while well-rehearsed, is also pretty boring. Unfortunately, that’s the case with Onda in Santa Monica.
At this point in LA’s dining evolution, massively hyped collaborations are the norm, but few could match the anticipation surrounding Onda. That’s what happens when the chefs from Sqirl and one of the most popular restaurants in the whole of Latin America, Contramar, team up to open an upscale Mexican restaurant inside a fancy Santa Monica hotel. Fair or not, high expectations simply come with the territory. But the more we dined at Onda, the more we realized the issue here wasn’t merely about meeting expectations, it was about missed opportunities. In particular, the chance to create something wholly new and truly exciting. And that’s disappointing - whether you’re aware of Onda’s pedigree or not.
To be clear, you will eat some tasty food at Onda. Some dishes, like the anchovy-topped Caesar and the marinated sweet potatoes in a housemade crema, border on being great. But even when Onda’s menu is at its best, there are simply too many things that taste exactly like each other. Whether it’s deep-fried kelp, jackfruit sopes, or an inside-out turkey quesadilla, everything at Onda generally relies on two profiles: smoky and really salty, as in enough salt to keep the streets of Buffalo clear for 50 winters. Now, this certainly isn’t an attack on salty or smoky food - those flavors work for a reason (and in moderation). But when an entire meal morphs into a never-ending blitz of smoke and sodium, even the most successful plates begin to bleed together into one monotonous mega-dish. But that’s not the only element of Onda that feels redundant.
Their all-white space is located on the ground floor of the most architecturally significant building to open in Santa Monica in years - the Proper Hotel. And yet, the dining room feels like it was designed specifically to be as sterile as possible. The reason Contramar has become one of Mexico City’s great restaurants (besides the seafood) is that their big, lively dining room makes you feel like you’re in the middle of the best party in town. Sqirl’s accessible, order-at-the-counter cafe space has become a symbol not just of our city, but the ethos of an entire generation of Angelenos. A meal at Onda feels like you’re inside a car museum, eating an obligatory dinner with your tour group.
Perhaps if the food was more dynamic, or the energy inside the dining room more abundant, Onda’s shortcomings wouldn’t be quite as apparent. As is, the most striking detail about this place is just how dull it all feels. You are guaranteed a fine meal, of course, but those small moments of genius and unexpected shifts of emotions that’ll have you jumping to your feet never arrive. But don’t worry, we hear the LA Philharmonic still has some tickets left.
There’s a decent chance this bowl of masa-battered kelp and anchovies will be the first thing that hits the table, and it’s a pretty accurate precursor to the rest of the meal. You’ll enjoy your first bite, because salt tastes good, but every subsequent bite becomes such an intense avalanche of sodium that the dish is nearly rendered inedible. Not even the crema salsa verde on the side can save it.
This is a dish that might not pop out to you at first, but you need to order it. It’s not only one of our favorite things at Onda, it’s as good a Caesar as you’ll find in town. Crunchy romaine, anchovies, Spanish goat cheese, and breadcrumbs - it’s the kind of simple and remarkably well-balanced dish that’s in short supply here.
One of the newer dishes on Onda’s menu, we like it simply because it brings some much-needed acidity to a meal that’s otherwise dominated by smoke and salt. Also, the scallops themselves are delicious.
A clear play on Contramar’s most famous dish, the tuna tostada, we enjoyed this the first time we ate it. During subsequent meals, however, that sentiment started to fade. Despite a slew of exciting toppings (sauerkraut, Castelvetrano olives, braised tomatoes), the dish doesn’t taste like much of anything. Unless you count the trout itself, which, during a few meals, was exceptionally fishy.
We absolutely love this dish. Yes, it’s smoky and salty, but it’s also incredibly flavorful. The marinated sweet potatoes themselves are very good, but the star of the show is the housemade crema at the bottom of the plate. If you aren’t swiping up the remnants with your finger, we have nothing in common. But leave the accompanying tortillas off to the side, they don’t add anything.
If you come to Onda, you’ll absolutely eat this dish - every other table is. As much as we wanted it to be the dish that tied the meal together, it’s unfortunately a bit of a mess. Completely oversalted, way too greasy, and filled with a mix of ingredients (turkey, oyster mushrooms, cheese, salsa verde) that fail to complement each other’s flavor profiles. Try your hardest to skip this dish.